Sci-fi Of The Old School
Science fiction has long been a genre that has facilitated deep and complex discussions on social structure and philosophy. Beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and its themes of religious paranoia in the face of scientific advancement, continuing today in films like District 9 which use alien life as metaphors for current societal moods concerning immigration and race relations.
When science fiction is coupled with a dystopian and/or authoritarian landscape, it can make for a powerful experience.
Neofeud is no exception.
Neofeud is the debut game of native Hawaiian, Christian Miller. It’s an ambitious project, drawing on personal experience as a STEM teacher for underprivileged kids in Honolulu as well as a wide array of popular sci-fi films and books. The aesthetic is heavily skewed towards Blade Runner or The Fifth Element, while the story is reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the film version of I, Robot.
Players take on the role of Karl Carbon, a police officer turned social worker. I was immediately hooked by this detail. I had expected to play a character akin to Decker in Blade Runner; a sort of rogue-cop with good intentions. There are definitely cop-like qualities about Carbon, but he’s a social worker through and through. And this makes for a compelling story, and some truly heartbreaking gameplay.
Drawing from personal experience, Miller has delivered us a story that is so much more than “humans vs. automations.” Carbon has cybernetic enhancements, but they’re obsolete and he can’t afford to replace them. He works with AIs and robotic entities that society has deemed “defective” and “unhireable.” He understands what it’s like to be cast aside and denied resources at every turn.
Neofeud‘s story begins in a social security benefits office. This sets an incredibly dynamic atmosphere, and is a wonderful piece of forshadowing. Players meet an illegal robotic entity with a heavy Eastern European accent and a robotic military veteran trying to apply for housing and food assistance as well as trying to get ahold of medications to help control his PTSD. The dialogue with the robotic vet is a bit cheesy, but it’s still a heavy conversation; he expresses concern over being denied assistance again, and wondering how he’ll ever find work after being diagnosed with such a serious mental illness.
And here is where things are going to get more than a little spoiler-y, but I cannot continue to talk about this game without addressing some of these early scenes especially. So if you don’t want anything given away, skip down to the last paragraph for final thoughts.
This game is difficult to talk about because it is difficult to play. Not in the traditional sense; it’s a Sierra-esque point-and-click adventure with pretty solid controls and charming, hand-painted art. It’s difficult to play because it forces you to think about the economic and social impact that negative race relations in the United States have on people. Specifically, people of color. Even more specifically, the root causes of the Black Lives Matter Movement and murders of trans women of color.
As a white, cisgendered woman (albeit a lesbian), I most certainly have the luxury of turning a blind eye to social injustices, police brutality and anti-trans violence. It doesn’t have anything to do with me, so why should I care? I do care, but Neofeud showed me that I should not only care, but act.
There is a scene early on when Carbon is called out to a housing project in the slums of Low-City; a Brazilian favela-style building cobbled together from discarded car bodies and shipping containers. While there, he is tasked with checking in on the family of one of his wards.
The game has players conduct a full CPS investigation of the household. With each question on the form, players are made to choose between seeing these robotic entities as either thinking, feeling people or simply chattle to be tolerated until they shouldn’t be. Players have to check for things like access to clean water and food. But these are robots; they don’t need water or food. Carbon has the ability to tear this family apart simply by holding them to an impossible set of standards. Standards put in place by the very privileged to keep poorer folks trapped in a racist system.
“Neofeud is science fiction at it’s most raw and visceral.”
Personally, I chose to keep the family together. They were doing the best they could with what little they had. However, upon leaving the apartment, the CPS department head called and gave the order to take the kids anyway. It didn’t matter that I had done an investigation and determined nothing was amiss. Nevermind that these were people just trying to get by.
When police arrive to help remove the children from the home, they come wearing full body armor and carrying assault rifles. As the situation escalates, the father (the ex-military robot from the social security office) steps between his wife and the officers begging them to listen to him and is promptly gunned down for “disobeying police orders.” The officers leave him to bleed out on the kitchen floor as they take the baby and leave.
Carbon stops the last officer and asks:
“What are you trying to do? Start another riot like you did with the Trayvon incident?”
It was too real, too on-the-nose. It gave me chills and made my stomach roll. This idea as robotics and cybernetic enhancements as metaphor for race is the bedrock of Neofeud’s story. It made me uncomfortable to listen to and watch…but that is the entire point. I can’t turn a blind eye in the game, and I certainly can’t turn a blind eye in real life.
Neofeud doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable subject matter. Instead, you’re made to face each gutwrenching situation head on.
It’s a wonderful game and an excellent debut for Miller and his studio. There are a few issues though. The dialogue doesn’t quite know if it wants to commit fully to the gritty, hyper real story or leap into the realm of satire. There are times when Carbon and NPCs alike replace swears with words like “butt” or “flak,” but in the next sentence there are no compunctions about yelling out swears. The tonal dissonance is a little jarring at times, but easily forgivable in a first game.
There is also a sequence around 3o minutes into the game that rapidly flashes yellow frames for about a minute or so. It wasn’t bothersome to me, personally, but it’s a concern for those with sensory based epilepsy. I mentioned it and Miller has stated that he’ll look into adding warnings for future players.
Neofeud is science fiction at it’s most raw and visceral. I find it highly enjoyable, despite it being less polished than I’d like. For a first game, this was an ambitious project that shows great potential. I can’t wait to see what else Miller and Silver Spook can do.